Recently, UChicago has shown an increased commitment to recruiting low-income students through initiatives such as QuestBridge and UChicago Promise. Fifty-one students in the Class of 2018 received full four-year scholarships through QuestBridge, the highest among all 35 partner colleges; 73 students in the Class of 2017 benefited from UChicago Promise, which includes a guarantee of no loans for Chicago residents who attended Chicago high schools and are admitted to the College.
All these initiatives are great, but what happens after these students arrive on campus? Many of them are also first-generation, meaning they are the first in their families to attend college.
Being a low-income, first-generation college student can be like jumping into a pool without knowing how to swim. As the daughter of immigrants with no college graduates in my family, I didn’t have a good idea of what to do once I was here. I didn’t know how to ask professors or TAs for help or how to pick the right classes. Everything was foreign to me.
UChicago was also a giant leap academically for me, adding another layer of difficulty to my transition. Like many low-income, first-generation students, I didn’t have a rigorous high school curriculum. I went to a public school in Chicago; though I was in the International Baccalaureate program, the academic rigor at my high school wasn’t on par with the rigor of elite high schools. I took advantage of all of the available resources and then some, such as taking AP tests for AP classes not offered at my school and taking free ACT practice exams at the Princeton Review. I worked extremely hard in high school and was awarded a QuestBridge Scholarship, but it was still a big challenge adjusting to UChicago. In high school, I put in a few hours of work each night and excelled, and I came in my first year expecting to have a similar workload. This strategy didn’t turn out too well at UChicago, where it’s easy to spend all day at the library. My transcript is riddled with Bs, Cs, occasional Ds, and even a failed class. No one had explained to me that attending an elite college required another level of studying.
I had come in with an obvious academic disadvantage, but this was reflective of systemic inequities, not my intellectual ability. However, some thought I wasn’t worthy of being here. My experience with math particularly stands out. My high school hadn’t offered calculus, so I placed into pre-calculus my first year, while most of my peers took calculus classes. I remember asking two housemates for help on my pre-calculus homework. One laughed at me for asking for help on such a “simple” problem and the other said I “should have studied harder” for my placement exam. There was a lack of awareness among my peers that we all hadn’t had the privilege of an elite K-12 education.
Having to adjust academically while dealing with microaggressions from classmates made for a difficult transition. It might have been easier had I been able to find students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, but there was no established community for students like me. This social isolation eventually made it difficult to concentrate on classes or even find enough energy to care. Dealing with such a foreign situation without social support was overwhelming. On top of that, I had no adult mentors or guidance, so it was easy to start falling between the cracks of this institution.
Adjusting to UChicago for a student of my academic and cultural background wasn’t going to be easy, regardless of any resources—but it could have been a smoother transition. Once students arrive on campus, this University takes a hands-off approach, which does little to help students who may need more help adjusting. I was making mistakes, but no one was there to help. There was no one asking any questions about why I had done poorly in a class. There was no one telling me how to do better. There was no community for students like me, which only intensified this feeling of exclusion.
The University does offer a bridge program called the Chicago Academic Achievement Program, which brings 50 incoming freshmen to campus the summer before to take classes, all with the intention of easing the transition to college. However, not all students who might need it participate, and once on campus, it is virtually impossible to find resources geared toward helping low-income, first-generation students transition into college. On top of that, it is difficult even to find adults to speak to because there is no point person at this University assigned to work with these students. While those resources don’t exist here, our peer institutions have taken steps to support this population: Stanford University has the Diversity and First Gen Office and Amherst College has a Student Life Fellow assigned to work with these students.
Providing resources is a very real acknowledgement that the struggles faced by first-generation students are unique and not a matter of intellectual ability. Being smart isn’t enough to make it through college. Without the right skills, mentors, and institutional support, some students can easily flounder. It’s only been this year that I have finally felt like I get this place. I can navigate it, and I can do well in my classes. I have even gotten to a point where I feel that I am thriving.
It wasn’t until I started an RSO for low-income and first-generation college students that I was able to find the support I needed. Without that group, I’m not sure I would be walking the stage in a few weeks.
I contemplated not coming back for senior year. Nationally, 89 percent of low-income, first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. I ultimately decided to stay, but it’s sobering to consider that I had gone from a high-achieving student to a potential college drop-out.
It took me a while to be vocal about my struggles because I somehow felt that being critical of the school meant I wasn’t grateful for the scholarship I received. Being grateful doesn’t mean I give up my right to free speech. My scholarship opened the doors for me, but it didn’t see me through my four years here.
Lynda Lopez is a fourth-year in the College.